Without god, there is no fairy-tale ending to this life. Life, filled with glory and suffering, heart-filled wonder and atrophied passion, comes to a sudden end with a flat-line: a monotone ending to a symphonic life.
And being human, we can’t help but have rhapsodic variations on the theme of this ‘condition’. Dylan Thomas rightly warned his father to rage, rage against the dying of the light. But his assertions apply to us all and not only toward the end of life – to ‘not go gently into that good night’ is not merely about the end of existence but apathy, too. Indeed, as the French define the moment after sex as ‘the little death’, so giving in to apathetic nihilism is itself a kind of self-destruction – though not one that follows pleasure like la petite more.
One difficulty in cleaning the fairy-dust off the collar of maturity, before we straighten it and head out into the world with all its indifference and difficulty, is precisely this: to not give into the apathetic nihilism that calls to many. Of course being a complete nihilist is an almost impossibility, which is something Nietzsche highlighted quite often in his writing. The passion Nietzsche called for – as opposed to what Mel Gibson yelled for – recast in Anglo-Saxon eloquence by Dylan Thomas, is something we need to set straight our sails. Nihilism is not only counter-productive, it is also boring. Life’s ultimate meaninglessness is enough without trudging through it with dreary abandon and the heavy boots of banality, finally caught by a sense of fatigue, only to drop without pause into the grave. This will not do.
But remember, we don’t need fairy-dust to fly (we have planes), we don’t need gods to be moral (we have ethics), we don’t need heaven to find meaning (we have reality), and we don’t need myths to position ourselves (we have the ground). This is what it means to straighten the collar of maturity; we have no super best friends by our shoulders guiding us through our life.
Our lives are perhaps the ultimate expression of Ecclesiastes 1:18: ‘For in much wisdom is much grief; and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.’ As nonbelievers, we care about what’s true. What the religions teach, or rather, preach, is not true. Our conclusions as to the veracity of religions’ claims might initially sadden some; for others, like myself, it can be ecstatic. Or, as Bertrand Russell said, exhilarating.
So, whilst we might increase our knowledge about the world, finding religions’ claims lacking, we respond in different ways. Ultimately, however, we cannot escape the sorrow that our lives will end – indeed, for some of us, painfully. Others might be glad to see it end (and not for reasons that would legitimise euthanasia), but then, this discussion does not apply to such people.
It is easier to perhaps not think of future non-existence (death) than to truly face his haggard grin. To think on life is itself to think on death. As Cicero put it: ‘To study philosophy is nothing but to prepare one’s self to die.’ We often hear the phrase that death is a part of life, as if that somehow is consoling. Instead, we must learn to not ignore death. But, because of our strong ties to finding out what is true, we cannot let our future corpses force our current passions to stagnate. We are not wormfood yet, we are not ash in the wind today.
So, if life is ultimately meaningless, if death is the end for our individual life, if no tawdry reward awaits us after – which turns us all into a choir-slaves if we’re good and satanic playthings if we’re bad – what are we to do? It seems obvious from this that our brief splutter of life now, our little light of current realisation, should ignite a passion to live fully, greatly, wonderfully – but, most importantly – freely. Enclosing flames puts them out. As we rage, we must rage for good reason. And there are plenty – primarily they should be about others lives, other fires. We should aim at bettering the lives of others, since overall, we benefit ourselves.
Truly it is magnificent that life is ultimately meaningless. Firstly, I would feel enormous responsibility and, therefore, fear if my actions had cosmic repercussions. I don’t know how people who are guided by The Secret and astrology manage to live everyday without going mad from the echoes of their failures and over-indulgence and solipsism. Secondly, it means I am not special to anyone other than those who can directly appreciate my meaningfulness. This is not an ultimate meaningfulness, but a protracted one, in which loved ones come to orbit my tiny life. We need no more than that. We are, indeed, lucky if people know us and appreciate us beyond our immediate circle. But a greater gaze means a greater scrutiny: for this reason, we all are forced into knowing the sexual goings-on of B-list actors. Yet, ultimately, it leads back to my first point: that kind of responsibility is terrifying. Finally, living a life that has no ultimate meaning seems to indicate freedom – I am not tied to ancient scripture into maintaining a cosmic balance, I have no need to consult sexually-repressed, old men about what a deity needs from me, personally, in order that he doesn’t wipe out the species. I am free to be an adult, to face the slings and arrows of this outrageous fortune of living but not asking for it, facing suffering that in the end has no meaning. The price-tag on freedom, in this sense, is high; what we had to go through, as a species, so that I might pen these words, is something too awful and too incredible to at once consider.
Schopenhauer, in his magnificent The World as Will and Representation, asks the following: if you compounded all of a person’s suffering and hardship that he will go through in his life into one long act, an act of suffering bleeding into another, we must ask this person: ‘Do you want to live this life?’ For Schopenhauer, the answer was an obvious no. Schopenhauer does not ask about the opposite: what if we took all the joy and wonder in a person’s life and showed her? It seems obvious the person would then take it. If we showed both, which would we let the person experience first? Pain or happiness? Suffering or security? Schopenhauer was not myopic in leaving out the corollary to his question. He was particularly sensitive to the suffering of the world as a whole; a feeling, he stated, that we could all feel quite sharply. We all could feel the horror of the world, of differing lives; but we rarely could, to the same level, be affected by joy and wonder. No matter how many rainbows or Megan Foxes, for Schopenhauer, nothing can eliminate the universe’s cruel nature in its ‘natural disasters’ nor man compounding such evil with his own innate hate of anything that is different, strange or unknown.
Certainly it is cruel and hard; and you might disagree with Schopenhauer. But we have to begin a new conversation, because answering with gods and fairies will not change that the world really does not care about us being here and that our brief flash of life will be smaller than dust in a cosmic gas cloud. As we, even now, swirl around, let us not be tempted by the sirens of apathy or the barks of dogma. Because, as Plato reminds us, ‘Death is not the worst thing that can happen to a man.’